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Budget deadlock points to government shutdown

Fiscal panelists pan Obama plan

- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2011

Members of both parties in Congress said they want to avoid a government shutdown but remained at an impasse Sunday as Republicans insisted on cuts in any stopgap spending measure while Democrats said that would threaten the economic recovery.

Meanwhile, in the long-term budget fight, the two leaders of the fiscal commission that President Obama created last year said the blueprint he submitted to Congress last week lacks the kinds of cuts the government will need if it is to get its fiscal affairs in order.

House Republicans this weekend approved a funding bill that cuts 2011 spending levels by $61 billion compared with 2010, but the measure now goes to the Senate, where majority Democrats oppose it. Mr. Obama has promised to use his veto pen if the legislation reaches his desk. That leaves both sides playing a game of chicken before March 4, when the current funding bill expires.

"We are not going to accept these extremely high levels of spending," House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

The Wisconsin Republican said his party is "not looking for a government shutdown" and predicted that Congress would agree to a short-term extension. But House Republicans, led by Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, have ruled out even a short-term spending extension without accompanying cuts.

Democrats have said deep cuts now would hurt the economy and sought to pin a threatened government shutdown on Republicans, even though they control the Senate and the White House.

"Speaker Boehner is on a course, I think, that would lead to a shutdown," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said on CNN's "State of the Union" program. "That's reckless. It would hurt the American people, jobs and the economy, and I'd hope he'd reconsider."

Mr. Schumer compared Mr. Boehner to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was largely blamed for the government shutdown in 1995 when the GOP-controlled Congress and President Clinton failed to reach an agreement on spending cuts.

Congressional Democrats have insisted that they are open to cuts this year but haven't provided specifics.

"Democrats in the Senate and, I think, the White House, are committed to making cuts," Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said on "Fox News Sunday." "The question is, what are the priorities here?"

Asked by host Chris Wallace how much she is willing to cut, Ms. McCaskill said she disagrees with the House bill's cuts to education and border security and that she would look to cut tax subsidies for oil companies.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said he doubts either side wants a shutdown.

"It's good for political rhetoric to talk about a government shutdown, but I don't know anybody who wants that to happen," he said on Fox.

Mr. Coburn said lawmakers will make cuts one way or another. "We're either going to make them or we're going to be told to make them by the people that own our bonds," he said.

Beyond the specter of a government shutdown, both sides continued to clash over the broader spending picture.

Republicans faulted Mr. Obama for not going far enough in his $3.7 trillion 2012 budget proposal to rein in near-term deficits and long-term debt. Democrats defended the plan as a solid first step.

The blueprint, which the president sent to Congress on Feb. 14, calls for a five-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, reducing the projected deficit an estimated $400 billion over the next decade. Mr. Obama said it makes "tough decisions" by trimming popular government programs including Pell Grants and heating assistance for the poor, but he attracted criticism for not addressing entitlement programs, which are the biggest drivers of long-term federal deficits.

Mr. Ryan on Sunday promised that the Republican budget would tackle entitlements and lead where Mr. Obama "chose not to," but he didn't offer additional details on the plan.

In a potentially embarrassing moment for the White House on Sunday, the bipartisan co-chairmen of the fiscal panel that Mr. Obama created criticized his budget in a Washington Post opinion column.

"To be sure, the president's budget doesn't go nearly far enough in addressing the nation's fiscal challenges. In fact, it goes nowhere close," wrote Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, Wyoming Republican.

A majority of the panel's 18 members approved a sweeping austerity plan in December, but it failed to garner enough votes for automatic congressional consideration. Through a mixture of tax hikes and spending cuts, the proposal called for reducing the projected deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years.

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